Hope for the Semi-Skilled?

At one time there was a reliable supply of undemanding, simple jobs — but that was before computers. As The New York Times noted recently: “The multi-trillionfold decline in the cost of computing since the 1970s has created enormous incentives for employers to substitute increasingly cheap and capable computers for expensive labor.”

Bank tellers, retail clerks, gas station attendants, airline receptionists, etc. etc – most of them have disappeared along with the jobs that once filled out the economy and offered opportunity to those less educated. And as computers continue to get better at voice recognition and deciphering questions, one has to wonder if any such jobs will remain?

As The Times put it: “computerization is . . . degrading the quality of jobs for a significant subset of workers. Demand for highly educated workers who excel in abstract tasks is robust, but the middle of the labor market, where the routine task-intensive jobs lie, is sagging.”
As a result workers without college educations “concentrate in manual task-intensive jobs — like food services, cleaning and security — which are numerous but offer low wages, precarious job security and few prospects for upward mobility. This bifurcation of job opportunities has contributed to the historic rise in income inequality.”

But a labor economist at Harvard, Lawrence F. Katz, suggests that there remains a niche for what he calls “new artisans.” As traditional low skill jobs disappear, he claims, there will be job opportunities in middle-skill jobs. He expects to see growing employment for “licensed practical nurses and medical assistants; teachers, tutors and learning guides at all educational levels; kitchen designers, construction supervisors and skilled tradespeople of every variety; expert repair and support technicians; and the many people who offer personal training and assistance, like physical therapists, personal trainers, coaches and guides. These workers will adeptly combine technical skills with interpersonal interaction, flexibility and adaptability to offer services that are uniquely human.” (See, “How Technology Wrecks the Middle Class.”)

These are the jobs that require skills but also interpersonal know-how. As Professor Katz put it: “These middle-skill jobs will persist, and potentially grow, because they involve tasks that cannot readily be unbundled without a substantial drop in quality.” So, he concluded, those without college degrees are “not devoid of hope.”

That is an odd note to strike, “not devoid of hope.” Not hopeless, but not exactly hopeful.

Perhaps Professor Katz’s ambivalence reflects his concern about what will happen to the wages of such workers once their ranks swell, or the social status they will enjoy. Perhaps he is troubled by what society will feel like with armies of such semi-skilled servants attending to the one percent. Will such workers further divide up according to levels of skill, the really good kitchen designers out-classing and out-earning the mediocre? Or will technology in the form of robotics and nano-devices catch up with the need and displace them just as they are gaining a measure of security?

No one knows for sure, of course. But it is hard to be certain or, even, enthusiastic. Professor Katz himself seems torn.